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Why families mustn’t pay lip service to the long term

When President Obama was simply president-elect, his favourite words were arguably "hope" and "change". But now that he's dropped the elect suffix and the reality of life in office has dawned upon him, his rhetoric has changed to sound remarkably like that of a family business owner writes Marc Smith.

His word du jour has changed to "long term", closely followed by "stability". In launching his American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan on 8 February, for example, he mentioned "long term" three times – "hope" and "chance" didn't get a look in.

In London, Prime Minister Brown has also developed a fondness for the word. Battling against public opinion that is turning angrily against bonuses in the banking industry, he too has promised a change of emphasis.

"In the future there must be rewards for success - but long-term sustainable success and not just short-term gains," he said, also sounding suspiciously like he'd been attending a networking event of family business owners. But while the world's leading politicians talk up the need to change, the real family business leaders out there are getting down and doing it.

The parallels between Karl-Johan Persson and Obama may not be immediately obvious. But as the 33-year-old CEO-elect of global fashion chain H&M – he doesn't take over until July – Persson embodies the next generation of the founding family much as Obama embodied the next generation of the Democratic party.

"I have a strong commitment to H&M and a long-term view of the company," said third-generation Persson on being chosen to succeed the retiring non-family CEO Rolf Eriksen. "H&M's development since it started over 60 years ago has been fantastic and there is still much to do."

Comparing these sentiments to Obama's reveals much. Persson's first words were not about trying to change something that was broken – the stable platform created by the family's guiding hand has ensured such drastic measures are unnecessary – they were about his long-term view and his desire to build on what has served the family business so well.

Naturally, a stable platform is something that Obama would dearly love to have inherited; unfortunately for him, the inherent weakness in the political system – whereby the goal of most politicians is not long-term development but short-term re-election – means he is having to promise what, possibly, he may not be able to deliver.

Families also know from recent, bitter experience that trusting someone who promises long-term gain is very different to someone who actually delivers it. While Madoff and now Stanford cast their shadows, it is worth remembering that they weren't the first and won't be the last.

If you can cast your minds back a few years, US hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management was also keen on promoting longevity. Founded in 1994 by a former vice-chairman of Salomon Brothers and no less than two men who shared a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, it was not only its name that promised much. Six years, a financial crisis in Russia and a massive bailout supervised by the Federal Reserve later it folded.

All of which leads us back to one simple question: are you simply paying lip service to the idea of managing and investing for the long term? Whatever the answer, it would seem to be a judicious time to revisit the values and principles of the founding members of your family's business and remember that while politicians and investment managers will come and go, families and the best businesses can go on indefinitely.

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Obama photo by Luke Vargas.

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